What is a career coach — and do you need one?

Career coaching is one of the latest buzzwords we hear, and it seems to be on the rise. But what is a career coach? And how do you know if you need one?

What is a career coach?

A career coach is a lot like a basketball coach in some ways. They’re specially trained to help you achieve your dreams (or at least one better suited to your desires and strengths — they can’t make you a rock star).

Generally, they’ll start by asking you questions designed to uncover your job experience and qualifications, understand your personality and gain insight into your life goals. After assessing your answers, you’ll have another discussion about your strengths and weaknesses and how those play into your goals. They’ll generally help you identify several goals, which will help them assess what type of position you’d be best suited for, what kind of job would make you happy and ultimately gain that position.

They’ll generally include in their assessment areas for improvement that make you more likely to land the job you want. From there, the direction it goes depends on what your goals are. They may help you look for jobs that meet your criteria as well as help you through the application and interview processes. They’ll likely help you set a timeline to determine how quickly you need to get certain things done.

Don’t let the description of this process fool you, though. It sounds pretty cut and dry, but it’s going to be a lot of hard work on your part, and you shouldn’t expect it to be an unemotional process. There are a lot of harsh realities you’ll have to face about yourself and what you’ve been doing that inhibits your ability to move in the direction you want to go — and then you have to put in the work to fix those things.

As Washington, D.C.-based career coach Linda Mercurio told USA Today, “Sometimes people will come and think there’s no work on their part, that somehow I’m the job fairy or the promotion fairy, and I can give them five easy steps to this goal. This is a messier process.”

Who needs a career coach?

Those who are unsatisfied in their careers and haven’t been able to make much headway on their own should consider a career coach. These could be people who want to transition to a different type of job but aren’t sure how, who want to move up the ranks in their company but haven’t managed to or even people who want a job change that would allow them to pursue other interests, like an advanced degree or even a hobby.

You also might consider a job coach if you’re re-entering the job force after a number of years away. The coach won’t just help you determine what skills you need to shore up, but he or she can also help you explain such a large absence clearly, professionally and, most important, convincingly.

It’s important not to think of a career coach as someone that only people who are troubled or having performance issues go to. Career coaches aren’t there to fix you; they’re there to help you achieve your goals in the time frame you want, instead of when it’s good for your boss. Even if you’re successful and just want to be more successful, a career coach may be able to help you.

In fact, many large corporations hire career coaches for their employees as a benefit. Zappos is a notable example as it has the Zappos Goals program, which provides life coaching for employees. Even if your boss doesn’t offer it, that doesn’t mean he or she won’t pay for it, even if you’re not an executive. Ironically, a career coach may be the best person to help you convince your boss why he or she should.

How to hire a career coach

Hiring a career coach can be tricky. The process is extremely personal, so you need to find someone who’s the right fit for you. Additionally, there’s no professional certification body. You can start by looking for someone who’s International Coach Federation (ICF) certified. You can also check out the Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches (PARW/CC). Neither of those really ensures that someone is the right fit for you nor that someone is not necessarily a bad fit.

Research coaches you’re looking at carefully online, searching for reviews of their work (not only on their websites) from others who’ve used them. Take it slow and hire the right person for you. If you feel you need someone who’s credentialed in psychology, look for someone who is. Ask potential coaches how many years of experience they have, what training they have specific to being a coach, what areas or specialties they normally work in, the types of businesses or professionals they usually work with, their coaching philosophy, what certifications they have and for examples of success stories. Make sure you interview several people and go with someone you think you can work with.

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